Martin Gilbert: The British heroes after Kristallnacht

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Sir Martin Gilbert's book Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, is published in paperback by HarperCollins.]

No event in the history of the Third Reich provoked such immediate outrage outside Germany as Kristallnacht: the destruction of synagogues and prayer houses across Germany and Austria, the looting of Jewish homes and businesses, and the murder of as many as a hundred Jews in their homes and in the streets. This orgy of destruction was followed by the immediate deportation of 30,000 Jewish men to concentrations camps.

Foreign journalists who witnessed the events of the night of November 9/10 reported in the fullest details to their newspapers. Foreign diplomats alerted their foreign officers to the anti-Jewish excesses of that night.

In response to the press coverage and parliamentary pressure, the British Government welcomed in more than 9,000 Jewish children before the escape routes were closed by the outbreak of war. Several thousand Christian families took these children into their homes.

History is the collective actions of myriad individuals, few of them well known or famous. Among those who showed that nobility of spirit that characterised the rescuers of Jews in those final ten months of peace were two teachers in the West of England, James and Kathleen Crossfield. They took in Pauline Makowski, a ten- year-old Jewish girl from Stuttgart.

Writing to me two years ago, Pauline Makowski recalled: “I was fostered by a Christian family from January 16, 1939 until I left their home in 1947 to train as a nurse. Their home was always regarded as my home and their children still regard me as their sister. They were exceptional people and their generosity of spirit should be acknowledged.” Pauline's parents did not survive the war: they were, in her words, “part of the lost six million”.

Another potential haven for Jews after Kristallnacht was Britain's Palestine Mandate. Largely as a result of the efforts of a British diplomat in Berlin, Captain Frank Foley, the restrictions on Jewish immigration were set aside or bypassed. Foley's work as British Passport Control Officer in the German capital was the “cover” for his Intelligence activities in Germany.

After Kristallnacht, Foley asked the British Mandate authorities in Jerusalem for extra certificates, including those for a thousand young Jews who would thereby be allowed to leave Germany. Benno Cohn, then a leader of the German-Jewish community, recalled how Foley “did everything in his power to enable us to bring over as many Jews as possible... One can say that he rescued thousands of Jews from the jaws of death.”

The rooms of the British Consulate where Foley had his offices were transformed into a shelter for Jews looking for protection. One witness recalled how the wives of those who had been taken to concentration camps were “besieging the consulate for a visa that meant liberation for their husbands. It was a question of life or death for several thousands.

During those days, Captain Foley's extensive humanity became obvious. Day and night he was at the disposition of those seeking help. Generously, he distributed every kind of visa, thus helping the liberation of many thousands from the camps.” Among those who saw Foley at work was a young Dutch Jew, Wim van Leer. “The winter of 1938 was a harsh one,” he later wrote, “and elderly men and women waited from six in the morning, queuing up in the snow and biting wind. Captain Foley saw to it that a uniformed commissionaire trundled a tea-urn on a trolley along the line of frozen misery, and all this despite the clientele, neurotic with frustration and cold, doing little to lighten his task.”

How does one pay tribute to efforts such as Foley's to save lives? On November 20, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband will unveil a plaque, to commemorate - in the words of the plaque - “those British diplomats who, by their personal endeavours, helped to rescue victims of Nazi racial policy.” They include Foley, and the British Consul General in Frankfurt, Robert Smallbones, who made extraordinary efforts after Kristallnacht to process as many British entry visas as possible...

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